Route Authors: Matthew Kadey and Tabi Ferguson
Location: St, Jacobs, Woolwich Township, Ontario
Estimated Gravel Time: 80%
Full Route Map:
Distance: 772.7km (480.2 miles)
Suggested Tire Width: 40mm or wider.
In July 2019, I had the privilege of completing the inaugural edition of the Butter Tart 700 (BT 700). This route is unique in that it provides the opportunity for cyclists from Canada’s most populous region to participate in an epic long-distance bikepacking adventure right on their doorstep. Meanwhile, as the name of the route suggests, this area of rural southern Ontario is also known for its baked goods, particularly the ubiquitous butter tart, a uniquely Canadian confection that can fuel even the most calorie-deprived cyclist.
As we approach the start of the second annual BT 700 Grand Depart, I just wanted to share my reflections about this trip, as well as some tips, tricks (and mistakes!) I learned along the way. While I completed the route in five days, it should be noted that the BT 700 has changed somewhat since I completed it in 2019. Namely, the length of the loop has increased by approximately 55km, from 715km to 773km, largely due to the inclusion of the Georgian Bluffs north of Owen Sound. So please bear in mind that what follows are my experiences riding the shorter version. The 2020 edition is sure to be even tougher!
Stage One: St. Jacobs to McGregor Point Provincial Park
From an elevation standpoint, the first stage of the route is most certainly the easiest, forgoing any significant climbs as it slopes gently down to the shores of Lake Huron. That’s not to say that this portion of the route isn’t without its challenges. First, as much of this section is made up exposed gravel farm roads, you’ll most likely be at the mercy of the prevailing headwinds. In addition, as the area surrounding St. Jacobs is home to the largest population of Old Order Mennonites in Canada, be prepared to dodge plenty of road apples (and be sure to observe proper etiquette when passing any horses and buggies).
Meanwhile, while shelter from the wind can often be found along several significant stretches of rail trail, as these trails are shared-use, they can be a bit chewed up due to ATV traffic. That said, anyone who gravitates towards rougher dirt will appreciate the several sections of rowdy unmaintained doubletrack scattered throughout this stage.
Should you make it all the way to McGregor Point Provincial Park on that first day, you’ll be rewarded with a cool foot soak in Lake Huron and a fantastic sunset.
Stage Two: McGregor Point Provincial Park to Thornbury
After departing McGregor Point Provincial Park, the initial 20km along the shores of Lake Huron remain relatively flat. However, soon after the town of Southampton, you will notice a change in elevation as the route leaves the lake behind and skirts the southern edges of Georgian Bluffs Township. Here, the original route connected to the Georgian Bluff Rail Trail, following this (at times rough) shared-used trail all the way to the city of Owen Sound. However, the 2020 edition of the BT 700 provides riders with the option of heading north instead and exploring the Georgian Bluffs peninsula in its entirety, adding another 55km or so to the original loop.
From Owen Sound, the route eventually proceeds north, following a mix of rail trails and gravel roads around the perimeter of Canadian Forces Base Meaford. Here, the loop features its most significant climbs to date before eventually joining the Georgian Rail Trail all the way to the village of Thornbury, and a well-earned stop at the Thornbury Cider House.
Stage Three: Thornbury to Blue Mountain
The third stage of the BT 700 is when the climbing begins in earnest, as this section of the route ascends over 2,000m through the Grey Highlands. Start early, bring plenty of water, and be prepared for a series of punishing ascents and sphincter tightening descents. Fair warning for anyone with a fully loaded bike and a 1:1 gear ratio (or higher) – you will have to endure a bit of hike-a-bike (especially when encountering some of the steep and rocky sections of unmaintained that litter this stage of the route). Most importantly, use plenty of insect repellant. Not that it will help you. The deer flies will surely extract their pound of flesh during those steady climbs.
That said, while this is certainly the route’s toughest section, be sure to take the time to soak in your surroundings. The Grey Highlands offer some of the most beautiful tree-lined dirt in southern Ontario. So let out a whoop or two on those crazy descents. It will help you to forget that you will have to earn back every meter of lost altitude sooner rather than later.
Stage Four: Blue Mountain to Albion Hills Conservation Area
I will be the first to admit that stage three and four of the BT 700 are a bit of a blur. In many ways, this section replicates the previous day’s travails as it features similarly steep climbs, rocky unmaintained, and screaming descents. The key difference being that it manages to take significant advantage of the available local singletrack, as the route snakes its way south through several provincial parks, conservation areas and public forest trail systems.
It should also be noted that the BT 700 provides for mellower gravel road alternatives for anyone not comfortable riding forested singletrack. That said, give these sections a shot. You’ll be surprised by what a wide-tired gravel bike can handle, even when fully loaded.
Stage Five: Albion Hills Conservation Area to St. Jacobs
Aside from the final significant climb up Kennedy Rd. to the Devil’s Pulpit (which ought to give you a sense as to the steepness of this incline), as well as the singletrack that winds its way through Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, much of the day’s final push to St. Jacobs makes use of the Elora/Guelph Cataract trails, a relatively smooth (and flat!) rail trail system that takes riders to the town of Elora.
From here, the route follows a mix of exposed gravel farm roads and mellow rail trails back to the start of the BT 700 in St. Jacobs. Be sure to treat yourself to beer (or three) at the Block Three Brewing Company upon your arrival. Trust me – you’ll most certainly have earned it!
This was my first extended bikepacking trip using the Panorama Katahdin and overall the bike acquitted itself admirably throughout the BT 700. I was extremely comfortable during my long days in the saddle, and the bike handled the rough and rowdy unmaintained sections with aplomb. Much of the credit goes to the bike’s ability to clear the 700x45 WTB Riddler tires I purchased specifically for this trip.
After all, there is no substitute for floatation.
It also helped that I ran these tires tubeless. The BT 700 has several sections of rough unmaintained and I met a number of riders with pinched flats over the course of the route’s first couple of days.
Finally, if you’re using a gravel bike, be sure to take advantage of the large frame triangle and get yourself a full framebag. When lashing equipment to a bike, you’re much better off storing the heaviest gear closer to the middle/bottom of the frame. By maintaining the lowest centre of gravity, this will have the least impact on your bike’s handling. I used a custom bag made by Rogue Panda and it remains one of my favourite pieces of kit.
What I Would Do Differently
1. Carry more water. It goes without saying that southern Ontario in July is hot. Damn hot. Stinking hot. The week I rode the BT 700 saw the humidex peak in the mid- to upper-30s. I had three bottles of water with me.
It wasn’t enough.
Whether you’re riding on exposed windswept farmland, or dealing with the steep climbs that are a regular feature of the route’s latter half, staying hydrated is essential. So if your bike’s fork has mounts for water bottle cages, use them!
2. Southern Ontario isn’t flat. Heck I was born and raised in southern Ontario, so I know full well that this section of the province is not flat. Even then, the amount of climbing (especially on the third and fourth days) still caught me by surprise. So if you have a compact/sub-compact drivetrain on your bike, switch it out in favour of something ultra-low. Sitting in your saddle and slowly grinding your way over that hill is much better than walking.
3. Deer flies are attracted to dark colours. Consider yourselves warned.